School Committee And Town Council Continue To Mull Interview Questions For Candidates To Fill Three School Committee Vacancies


Photo: Public Domain

Report On The Special Joint Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council And Remaining Amherst School Committee Members, September 11, 2023

This meeting was conducted via hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large). Michele Miller (District 1), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large) participated remotely, as did remaining School Committee members Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes.

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Timeline For Filling Vacant School Committee Positions
Interview questions will be finalized at the September 18 Town Council meeting. Statements of Interest from candidates must be received by Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe ( ) by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, September 20. These statements will be posted on the Town Council website by September 22. Interviews will take place on Tuesday, September 26 beginning at 6 p.m. If needed they will be continued on Monday, October 2, with selection of the three interim SC members at the conclusion of the interviews.

Public Comment
Vince O’Connor said, “What we’re faced as a town is a sad and tragic situation. I intend to ask to be appointed to the school committee, but not run for that office. I would like to encourage an open process with public participation. We are very aware that the failure of people in authority to respond to comments that they got, the concerns expressed either in meetings or in emails, has led to a situation of really angry feelings about what is going on with certain schools, and that can’t go on.”

Jena Schwartz voiced her concerns about how bias might influence the interview questions and selection of residents to fill the current vacancies. She pointed to a recent Daily Hampshire Gazette article that devoted considerable attention to former SC members “effectively calling themselves victims, rather than shifting the focus to where it belongs, back to the children who were actually victimized in our schools. How about asking questions that ask prospective school committee members how they intend to acknowledge and honor deeply real concerns when they are brought forth by ARPS educators, staff members, and family members of students?”

Halley Kelly, nonbinary representative of the State Democratic Committee, said that former Superintendent Mike Morris should have been put on administrative leave until there was a full investigation of transphobic abuse. She stated, “We have to make sure that whoever fills these seats have a history of being outspokenly pro-transgender.”

Kairo Serna, also a member of the State Democratic Committee, agreed, noting that former SC members refused to take accountability for their role in the middle school situation, especially in defending Morris, who was “in part responsible for turning a blind eye to the suffering of children under his watch.” They advocated for questions to prospective SC members centering on the needs of students.

Richard Roznoy pointed out the advantages in continuity in appointing interim SC members who will be candidates in the November election and, if elected, will provide continuity to the committee, but added that it may be preferable to appoint people who will serve for this limited time and can be objective. He hoped there would be more clarity on how the interim members will be selected.

Discussion Of Interview Questions
Council President Lynn Griesemer compiled a list of possible interview questions from those submitted by seven councilors, one SC member, and one member of the public. She noted that if all 14 suggested questions were to be accepted, each interviewee would be speaking for over 30 minutes with two minutes for each question and opening and closing remarks. However, many councilors and the SC members felt that several of the suggested questions could be eliminated. 

SC member Jennifer Shiao and Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) thought the first two suggested questions, which asked if there was anything candidates wanted to add to their opening statements, could be eliminated. Shiao also thought several of the questions sounded like a test, asking about candidates’ knowledge of SC policies. Fellow SC member Irv Rhodes noted that all new members will undergo an orientation with review of existing policies, so it was not necessary for them to be asked about these details in the interview process.

Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she didn’t like the idea of identical questions that all candidates are given ahead of time because it does not allow for spontaneity and follow-up. She said she feels that the most important quality for applicants is the ability to apologize if they make a mistake. She agreed with the comments from members of the LGBTQ+ community about the harm students at the middle school experienced, and added that there should be no bullying of any child in our school system.

Rhodes stated that those appointed should have the ability to deal with public scrutiny and negative feedback. Several people mentioned the importance of a question asking how the applicant has dealt with criticism and harm in the past, although Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) worried that asking that question could require people to relive a traumatic situation. She suggested asking how the applicant would support individuals who have been harmed.

The interim SC members will only serve for three months, including beginning the budget process and starting the search process for a new superintendent, and might be recipients of the report of the Title IX investigation into bullying of trans students at the middle school. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) thought experience in budgeting and participation with a search committee should be  important factors in choosing the interim appointments.

Much of the discussion centered around the question of how the applicant will assure that the SC’s practices, processes, and decisions are anti-racist. Hanneke wanted to substitute ”equitable” for ”anti-racist.” 

Shiao objected to the pushback over the term anti-racist, especially since all councilors have gone through anti-racism training and “we all swim in this white-supremacy world.” She added, “I’m particularly thinking of decisions the school committee has made in the past that weren’t actively racist, but were definitely not proactively anti-racist.” However, she did agree to add being “inclusive and equitable” to the question. 

Anika Lopes (District 4) said that different people have a different understanding about the term anti-racist, so it is important to be specific about what is meant. Also, she worried it might be a “loaded” question. Rhodes also had difficulty with the term anti-racist, saying he does not know what people mean when they say they are anti-racist. However, Ellisha Walker (at large) said that anti-racism doesn’t just mean one thing, and “that is the beauty of it. We can let whoever’s applying interpret it for themselves and let us know what it means to them.” Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) also supported keeping the question.

Griesemer invited councilors, SC members, and the public to send further comments on the interview questions to her by noon on Wednesday, September 13. The questions will be finalized and the interview and election process for the three vacant seats will be set at the September 18 council meeting. Still to be decided are whether there will be public comment at the interview meeting on September 26 and whether applicants will be allowed to ask questions. Bahl-Milne asked about creating a rubric to evaluate candidates, since discussion can be awkward.

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